by Brian Whitaker
Originally published in Middle East International, 12 September 1997
A furore has erupted in Yemen over plans to divide the southern province of Hadramawt. After a heated debate on August 31, the newly-appointed Consultative Council - an advisory body with no legislative powers - recommended splitting the province into two. The exiled opposition group, Mowj, immediately responded by establishing a Committee for the Defence of a Unified Hadramawt.
Administratively, the proposal makes sense. The provincial capital, Mukalla, lies on a narrow coastal strip, while the other populated area, Wadi Hadramawt, lies inland, separated by 200 miles of mountain roads. The geography makes communication between the two parts (as well as with the national capital, Sana'a) difficult.
The unspoken agenda behind the proposal is that the government's political grip on Hadramawt is tenuous and breaking up the province might make it easier to control.
Before 1994, Hadramawt was a stronghold of the Yemen Socialist Party (YSP). In the general election last April, President Salih's General People's Congress won only six out of 17 parliamentary seats in Hadramawt, despite its landslide victory in the country as a whole. The traditionalist/Islamist Islah party won eight seats, while independent candidates secured 40% of the popular vote but only three seats.
The YSP and its allies boycotted the election but remain active in southern Yemen, and especially Mukalla, where there have been numerous strikes and demonstrations since the 1994 war. At the same time, the growing influence of Islah - the YSP's sworn enemy - can be seen in the two sentences of death by public crucifixion passed by a court in Mukalla last July.
The case for a united Hadramawt is based mainly on its distinctive character and history, though the fear in Sana'a is that this could lead to demands for greater local autonomy and - ultimately - to secession. Part of the fear stems from the fact that the failed attempt to establish a separate state in southern Yemen three years ago was led mainly by a Hadrami faction in the YSP.
During that attempt one option considered was to abandon Aden and establish a Republic of Hadramawt incorporating the two other south-eastern provinces, Shabwa and al-Mahara. The YSP's military advisers argued that it had a higher chance of success than the plan eventually adopted.
Economically, a mini-state based on Hadramawt, Shabwa and al-Mahra, would be an attractive prospect. It would have only one-twelfth of Yemen's total population but also one-third of Yemen's oil. Per capita, it would thus be four times better off on its own than in a united Yemen.
Although a renewed secession attempt seems very unlikely at present, the issue of Hadramawt has been raised at a welcome moment for the southern opposition. For three years they have been desperately seeking a big issue around which they can rally support and now, potentially, Sana'a has handed them one on a plate.
Meanwhile, Yemeni authorities have released 120 southern opposition figures who were arrested at the end of July (MEI 556) but 11 have been charged in connection with dynamite attacks on petrol stations in Aden.